In the opening scene of Wayne Wang’s film Coming Home, actor Justin Chon is preparing kalbi, the traditional Korean barbecued ribs dish. It’s a dish his Korean-American character Chang-rae enjoyed growing up, one his mother prepared for him on special occasions. He precisely slices the meat into thin strips, careful to keep the meat connected to the bone and then sets it in a marinade, carefully following his mother’s recipe. As he does so, he remembers his mother’s words on how the proximity of flesh to bone gives the dish its flavor.
He wants to recreate the dish for a special occasion but also to show his mother how much she means to him.
Wang, the film’s director, asked Korean-American chef Corey Lee to teach the actors how to cook the dishes featured in the film. In a recent webinar to promote the film, Wang spoke about the efforts taken to recreate that initial food preparation scene and also the flashback scenes of Chang-rae’s mother preparing the same dish.
“One of the ones that was really difficult,” said Wang, “was butterflying those short ribs. So that it was done just right so that the flesh could still be attached to the bone and really look nice and that became such a metaphor for the movie because the flesh still attaching itself to the bone and lending itself to the taste is such a great way to describe the relationship between the son and the mother.”
Chang-rae comes home to care for his dying mother and must confront what it means to lose a parent, one he distanced himself from while trying to form a sense of identity. For the children of immigrants, fitting into a new culture can mean rejecting the culture of your parents, while still longing for the comfort of the familiar. By recreating his mother’s dishes, he hopes to not only express his love for her but recapture the sense of home that she created. The film script was inspired by Lee Chang-rae’s eloquent and moving New Yorker story, Coming Home Again, which was based on his own experiences.
Chon plays Chang-rae with subdued intensity. His calm composure when caring for his mother subtly ripples with the rage he feels at facing her death and the realization that life rarely offers second chances. Jackie Chung plays his mother with a quiet grace that lends nobility to her character’s self-effacement.
Coming Home was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Busan International Film Festival and CAAMFestForward, organized by the Center for Asian American Media. The film was a CAAM production.
Wang is known for his diverse films, including Joy Luck Club, Because of Winn Dixie, Maid In Manhattan, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and The Center of the World. He is the winner of numerous international awards.
Chon appeared in the Twilight series, Seoul Searching and the Korean-American TV series Dramaworld. He is also a director and producer, having directed Gook and Ms. Purple. Chung is an actress and writer, who appeared in Someone Else, Station 19 and Grey’s Anatomy.